There’s a certain joy that comes with being open-minded. You can go through your experiences imagining outcomes, but I find there to be a specific release that comes with expecting the unexpected. However, even when you are postured for the next surprise, you can be so enchanted by the density of outdone predictions, it is as if the world is getting an especially gleaming shoe shine.
Although I’ve been slow to document my growing list of favorites in Sacramento, California’s Capital has offered a steady stream of inspiration for the last handful of weeks. The discoveries are continual and impressive, stretching me to remain un-preconceived.
The quintessential example of this has been my dreamy meals at Enotria, in the pastel-dipped design district of town. I will recount the morsels I’ve eaten, but first, let this scenario illuminate the level of detail to which this place strives. Sacramento is a summery place – even as early as February – so restaurants serve ice in their water. On my second visit, my water came with no ice. I had only mentioned it once, late in February when I first visited, but apparently I had been placed on a customer list somewhere in the back of the house that specified my preference for no ice. As soon as I was recognized by the hostess, the whole staff seemed to know how I took my water. Shoe shine city!
Picture a restaurant just off an intersection, across from a place where you can buy industrial-sized blocks of ice, adjacent to a billboard advertising a gun convention. Other than a bright black valet booth and the neatly painted stucco panels surrounding Enotria, there are few signs that you’ve “arrived.” Once inside, it is a different story. The cocktail area is warmed by a lacquered bar and short leather chairs that look like they were lifted from a VIP lounge circa 1940′s Miami. There are two patio areas, each with heat lamps, one of which is a courtyard with a fountain, strings of twinkling lights, and a wise live oak whose craggy branches punctuate coral sunsets.
Although there is a retro charm and a tangible coolness to Enotria, the most notable renovation to this decades-old eatery hasn’t been the decor, but the people. The injection of life blood that local chef Pajo Bruich and his solid general manager Anani Lawson bring put Sacramento on the map in a new way. Pajo has previous experience at Lounge ON20 and at San Francisco’s Benu, and Anani hails from such culinary powerhouses as French Laundry and Per Se. They’ve got a commitment to lavish service and exquisite details that comes through in every interaction, not just on the plate where Pajo shines.
I recommend several visits, one to take in the full gesture of the season with the chef’s tasting menu, and another for a cocktail and a few orders from the delightful happy hour menu. You can order from the a la carte menu after 6:30pm and sit in the courtyard. If you snag a table in the main dining room, choose between the full tasting menu, the vegetarian tasting menu or a truncated 4-course menu.
My dining partner and I began to think the bartender was a mind-reader as she spoke of the cocktail of the day, that day a twist on the Jack Rose, a drink we had just been learning about for an Oakland cocktail tour we are leading. Her rendition was immaculate, with the zestiness of limes to cut the sweetness of house-made grenadine. Small, sweet oysters were served with horseradish caviar, a few other dapples of molecular gastronomy, and a micro-frond of lemon balm. But, fries were not so fancy they forgot to be fries. The quilted charcuterie plate looked more like a Gorky painting than a meal-starter, but with zingy mustards, pickled fruits, gem gelées, black garlic pastes, smoked salt-flecked lardos,and fanned-out slivers of other prime cures, it became a meditative play to identify each pure note from the symphony of flavors.
Be sure to make reservations for the full experience in the main dining room. Your menu, which may well bear your name, will take you through an undulating paradise of courses that reflect the most recent gastronomic conceptions of the chef. Don’t roll your eyes: one of the nine-odd courses is sure to have some sort of foam on it, but this is not the Michael Bay of restaurants. Most of the refined dishes are a balance of well-executed sauces and a triad of complementary flavors, intended to play off one another without becoming an undefined swamp. Restraint is practiced on dishes like the pea shoot agnolotti and in meat preparations like pork cheek and rib eye, where the innate umami flavor is coaxed.
Although it tacks another $65 to your fixed price meal, the wine pairings, chosen by Anani, are truly elevating. The white that was poured with our imaginative brassica course was Illumination from Quintessa, one of the best wineries in the Silverado Trail region of Napa, if not the whole county. I didn’t know Quintessa made white wine, so together with the miraculously un-oaky full body, it was doubly pleasing. The Argentinian red paired with egg-stuffed ravioli hidden under feathers of black truffle, was admittedly succulent.
It was the details – the quiet atmosphere, the gently glowing lighting, the definitive vibe of striving for the best – that made Enotria such a memorable and worthwhile experience. It is surprisingly easy to spend $100 on a meal in California’s famed kitchens, and entirely possible that what wants to be a luxurious experience becomes one of status or show, or gets lost in the pomp and circumstance of fine dining that it becomes joyless. Enotria is refreshing, because it is a likely outcome of Pajo and Anani’s shared effort and vision, but in an unlikely place. It is fine dining muddled with the genuine hometown love the chef has for Sacramento. It is a sophisticated restaurant where you’ll be accepted in tennis shoes and won’t be stared down for asking too many wine questions or getting curious about what constitutes a “bloody mary disc” that is going to be coming to you on your oysters.
I get the sense that I am a part of what they are trying for just by attending their nightly show. I am certainly learning that the only thing worth expecting in Sacramento is surprise.
Ever since my recent galavant in Sacramento, there’s been that rather annoying but apt Jody Watley song in my head, I’m Looking for a New Love. My new love is exploring Sacramento, a place I’ve skipped over without giving it much time or thought in the years I’ve been writing about California. Silly me. To make up for it I’m going to be posting a series of entries here on GrassRoutes, which will add up to a mini-guide to my new crush.
Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, in Midtown, is a place that floored me. It was also the perfect sweet entrée into my adoration of Sactown. My knees literally started knocking when the owner – who is really named Ginger Elizabeth – brought out a slice of the formal layered gateau she had created with romance in mind. In addition to the five-some layers under the dark… Read more»
I often tell people that the various sides of the Bay Area all benefit one another, and the more I explore this diverse place, the more truth the statement holds. North, South, East, West, there are no boring parts of this vibrant place, there is only more to discover.
Belmont is one of those places that could be easy to skip over—after all, it is less than five square miles in size and nestled between the county seat San Mateo and the affluent small town of San Carlos.
There is more to this South Bay town than the strict anti-smoking laws for which it is nationally known (no smoking in any business, park, or even apartment complex). There are hidden gems that make it an excellent stop off, like The Vans Restaurant, a truly old-fashioned bar and steakhouse located in one of the two remaining buildings from San Francisco’s 1915… Read more»
Posted in Good Ideas / Northern California Wine Country / Places / San Francisco Bay Area
Romance is a dish best served casually. In the past few years I have found this to be increasingly true: love can be shown in the simplest of ways, and grand gestures of affection can punctuate each season, rather than fitting into the “supposed-to’s” of February. Here are some tasteful ways to show your adoration for your sweetheart any time of year, strengthened by the reminder this love-holiday brings:
1. Beautiful breakfast.
Breakfast in bed can’t be reserved for once a year, oh no! I’m finding myself drawn to simple, yet thoughtful additions to a warm bowl of cereal – something that can surprise your partner, nourish them for the day, and can be easily enjoyed before getting out of the cozy covers. Midweek romance can be the best surprise.
Soak steel-cut oats overnight to reduce cooking time in the a.m., or try something different, like whole grain polenta as a first… Read more»
Posted in DIY / Good Ideas / Kitchen Adventures / Northern California Wine Country / Places / San Francisco Bay Area
Oliveto is an outpost. Sure, it looks like a restaurant, but it is really more an enclave of food soldiers marching to the beat of boldness. Bob and Maggie Klein, incited by Maggie’s passion for olives, have created a unique restaurant with impeccable taste that is also abundant with revolutionary energy.
Depending on who you are and what you’ve experienced at Oliveto, the place might signify salumi or roast meats, ignite memories of chef Paul Bertolli before he started Fra Mani, or remind you of your first experience eating an heirloom tomato. It could be the place you got engaged or the place you just had a blissfully lingering night out with friends. Last night it was the host of a memorable family dinner, our table laden with things like precious agnolotti and linzer torte made with locally grown,… Read more»